Designing Happiness

Yes there really is a course called “Designing Happiness”.  It is taught by Professor Jennifer Aaker at the Stanford Business School. Last week she shared her insights on what makes us happy at an FWE&E event hosted at Cisco.

It was thrilling to see this beautiful woman professor, wife and mother take on a topic I would never have imagined being taught in academia. Professor Aaker tells us we think we know what happiness but it turns out we don’t. Happiness is hard to pin down and even harder to hold onto. Some of the reasons for this are:

1. Economics

Work Life Balance Affects Happiness. Whilst we may have become richer as a nation in the last 30 years, it has not increased our return on happiness. For example, women who are married with children and working outside the home, are 20% less happy than their stay home counterparts.

2. Age and Stage

The meaning of happiness shifts every 3 to 5 years as our priorities change. If conquering the world is what makes us happy between age 23 – 26, we trade ambition for balance at age 27 – 30. If having children makes us happy in our 30’s, feeling calm and content is what we seek in our 40’s.

3. False Memory

We don’t remember what makes us happy. For example, taking the children to Disneyland should make us happy. We forget the long lines and sugar filled screaming toddlers.  Memory decay happens when we take the happy pictures. Reviewing the photos later we forget the unhappy price we paid to get them.

4. Pinning your Hopes

We have ridiculous ideas on how to get happier. We pin our hopes on chasing things which in reality don’t makes us happy. For example people think if they were promoted at work, won the lottery, had a less stressful job, spent more time with good friends, had their worry gland removed or spent more time on vacation they would be happier.

These goals focus on being somewhere else and not on where you are in life. It turns out that within 3 days of receiving a promotion, winning the lottery or being on vacation, people are right back to a set point happiness. Once we experience the sensation of happiness, expectation creeps in. Happiness is fleeing and lasts only a short period of time. There is a gap between expectations, performance and happiness.

The Key to happiness

Happiness is generally the by-product of other activities, and not an outcome of consciously focusing on getting happy. In a study conducted at Yahoo! employees were given $100 and told to go and distribute the money. Half the group were told to use the money in a meaningful way, the other half on their own happiness.

People in the happy group spent less time doing things that were actually good for them. By contrast, the people in the meaningful group were happier because they were spending the money on others. They were connected to other people and their happiness came from helping others, not just themselves.

Meaningfulness is key to being happy. Our happiness is payback for the impact we have on others when we choose to engage in some small way and help them. Small acts can create big change.

What small act will I do to help someone today?

If you are Coca-Cola, you will put a vending machine on a college campus then film the students delighting in the unexpected behaviour of the machine dispensing gift. You will post to YouTube and call it the Happiness Machine.

So glad there is a machine for that…

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